Major Albu lifts my hand by the fingertips, squeezing my nails so hard I could scream. He presses one wet lip to my fingers, so he can keep the other free to speak. He always kisses my hand the exact same way, but what he says is always different:

Well well, your eyes look awfully red today.

I think you've got a mustache coming. A little young for that, aren't you.

My, but your little hand is cold as ice today—hope there's nothing wrong with your circulation.

Uh-oh, your gums are receding. You're beginning to look like your own grandmother.

My grandmother didn't live to grow old, I say. She never had time to lose her teeth. Albu knows all about my grandmother's teeth, which is why he's bringing them up.

As a woman, I know how I look on any given day. I also know that a kiss on the hand shouldn't hurt, that it shouldn't feel wet, that it should be delivered to the back of the hand. The art of hand kissing is something men know even better than women—and Albu is hardly an exception. His entire head reeks of Avril, a French eau de toilette that my father-in-law, the Perfumed Commissar, used to wear too. Nobody else I know would buy it. A bottle on the black market costs more than a suit in a store. Maybe it's called Septembre, I'm not sure, but there's no mistaking that acrid, smoky smell of burning leaves.

Once I'm sitting at the small table, Albu notices me rubbing my fingers on my skirt, not only to get the feeling back into them but also to wipe the saliva off. He fiddles with his signet ring and smirks. Let him: it's easy enough to wipe off somebody's spit; it isn't poisonous, and it dries up all by itself. It's something everybody has. Some people spit on the pavement, then rub it in with their shoe since it's not polite to spit, not even on the pavement. Certainly Albu isn't one to spit on the pavement—not in town, anyway, where no one knows who he is and where he acts the refined gentleman. My nails hurt, but he's never squeezed them so hard my fingers turned blue. Eventually they'll thaw out, the way they do when it's freezing cold and you come into the warm. The worst thing is this feeling that my brain is slipping down into my face. It's humiliating, there's no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it's barefoot. But what if there aren't any words at all, what if even the best word isn't enough.

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Excerpted from The Appointment by Herta Müller. Copyright © 2001 by Herta Müller. Excerpted by permission of Picador. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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